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Cyberbullying is a problem primarily among adolescents and it’s growing faster than parents, educators or policymakers can effectively respond.

Traditional bullying and bullying behavior long have existed, but cyberbullying is a relative newcomer. According to a University of Arizona study conducted by Bauman’s colleague Robert Tokunaga, about 20-40 percent of all youths report experiencing it at least once in their lives–although some contend the numbers could be higher.

“I think students underestimate their experiences with bullying because it is not fun to view yourself as a ‘victim of bullying,’ no matter how it is defined,” says Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center website. “It is basically suggesting that you are weak or unpopular or inferior in some way. Many people view victims in this light so teens might be reluctant to put themselves in that box.”

Significant life challenges result

But being a bully or being bullied is one thing; the consequences of the behavior are another matter entirely. Victims of cyberbullying frequently suffer from a host of negative problems. They have lower self-esteem, higher levels of social anxiety and school absenteeism, as well as greater involvement in drinking, smoking and significant life challenges, according to researchers.

“Both cyber and traditional bullying are predictors of depression and suicide attempts, and those risks exist for both perpetrators and targets,” says Bauman, a professor and director of the School Counseling master’s degree program at UA.

“Cyberbullying occurs in young people from all socioeconomic groups,” she says, “including students with disabilities. Chronic bullying and cyberbullying behaviors, for both perpetrator and victim, may persist into adulthood as well.”

So what is cyberbullying?

At minimum, researchers say cyberbullying is a subset of aggression that primarily occurs with adolescents. Aggression, as an academic and research construct, refers to intentional behavior that hurts or harms another person. Bullying, meanwhile, refers to aggression where there is also an imbalance of power and repetition of the act; or a “systematic abuse of power.”

“Cyber aggression and cyberbullying correspondingly refer to aggression and bullying carried out via electronic media–mobile phones and the Internet,” says Peter Smith, a professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Definitions of cyberbullying typically start with three concepts: intent to harm, imbalance of power and usually a repeated action, although some experts replace “repeated action” with “specific targets.” While traditional bullying uses these defining characteristics, there is controversy as to whether all these concepts apply to cyberbullying and in what capacity.

The inability to see a smile or a wink on the face of a friend who sent an electronic message could result in the communication being construed as cyberbullying.

“There are also problems with the imbalance of power criterion,” says Smith, who led the NSF-sponsored International Cyber Bullying Think Tank’s definition subcommittee last year. In traditional bullying, this is usually taken as being in terms of physical strength or psychological confidence in a face-to-face confrontation, or in terms of the number of bullies against one victim.

“These are not so clear in cyberbullying, which is not face-to-face,” he says. “There may nevertheless be an imbalance of power either through the anonymity of those committing the act, or if the perpetrators are known by the victim to have relative physical, psychological or numerical strength offline, then an imbalance of power may still be a factor in the victim’s perception of the situation.”

Smith says in some cases, greater technological expertise could also contribute to an imbalance of power, such as the ability of a bully to develop a website and post mean things about a classmate or a friend. “Although it is easy enough to send emails and text messages,” he says, “more sophisticated attacks such as masquerading, or pretending to be someone else posting denigrating material on a website, require more skill.”

In one notable example, a 13-year-old Missouri girl, Megan Meier, committed suicide after being harassed through a popular social networking website by a boy she liked. The cyberbully, it turns out, was not a boy at all, but instead was the mother of one of Megan’s former friends, who created a false identity to correspond with and gain information about Megan. The mother later used that information to humiliate Megan for spreading rumors about her daughter.

The incident clearly involved issues of anonymity, masquerading and the greater relationship skills possessed by the mother, not the fact that the mother was an adult, which traditionally creates a power imbalance with adolescents.

The third concept, repeated action, also gives some researchers pause. Due to the nature of cyberbullying, the act or behavior may repeat itself without the contribution of the cyberbully, they say.

For example, taking an abusive picture or video clip on a mobile phone may occur only once, but if the person receiving the image forwards it to anyone else, it could be argued that this falls under the category of repetition.

Additionally, if something abusive is uploaded onto a Web page, every hit on that page could count as a repetition. Consequently, the use of repetition as a criterion for traditional bullying may be less reliable for cyberbullying.

Patchin, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, formally defines cyberbullying as willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones or other electronic devices.

“When we measure the behaviors among teens, we tell them that cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices,” he says.

“We have to be careful about just labeling these incidents without really understanding the relationships,” says Yoon narrowing on the characteristics of cyberbullying. “We don’t know the history of these two individuals.”

“One could argue that the perpetrator is behind the computer with an obvious intent to hurt, which makes him or her more powerful than the victim,” she says. But maybe cyberbullying doesn’t necessarily fit. “I have heard a broader term such as electronic aggression, which might describe the case better.”

Cyberbullying remains in need of a consensus definition with social scientists struggling to find one.

Courtesy: National Science Foundation. For full article and more visit